By Ronak Shah
I started my teaching career as a middle school science teacher here in Indianapolis. One morning, I walked into the office and saw my student Kaevion holding a referral. Kaevion was one of the first students I’d ever taught, and two years later, I still checked in with him daily. He told me he was sent down for falling asleep in class. I was surprised, because he’s pretty energetic.
Kaevion responded, “The class was interesting, but I’m just really hungry. I got dropped off at school too late for breakfast, so I haven’t eaten since school lunch yesterday.”
I knew why. Kaevion was in a transient period between homes and families, and he didn’t always know if he’d have dinner that night. The only meals Kaevion could count on were breakfast and lunch at school. Thankfully, our school had just started community eligibility for school meals. 55 percent of our student body had forms on file demonstrating financial need, which qualified them to receive free or reduced-price meals. In reality, we had many more students living in poverty, but too many did not qualify for meal assistance simply because the paperwork wasn’t there. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act recognizes this valley that vulnerable students like Kaevion fall into. Through this law, we were able to ensure that all students in our school would eat each day, with our school pitching in part of the cost.
It seems straightforward: Children should not have to go to school hungry. As educators, we know how important it is for students to be well-fed. Students who eat nutritious meals daily have stronger attention and memory, are less hyperactive and lethargic, have less risk for diabetes and hypertension, and have fewer disciplinary incidents.
However, Representative Todd Rokita (R-Indianapolis) is proposing raising the bar for community eligibility from 40 percent to 60 percent. This would mean transient students like Kaevion may no longer receive meal assistance. And if he doesn’t have lunch money with him, he would go hungry.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that this bill would remove community eligibility from over 7,000 high-poverty schools, affecting over 3 million students nationwide. And the students most affected by Representative Rokita’s change are not wealthy students, but vulnerable ones who do not have an adult able to fill out the forms. We teach many students who are homeless, or who are living in abusive or neglectful homes.
Before community eligibility, too many students without meals at lunch would say, “Oh, I’m just not hungry,” rather than face the embarrassment of explaining that they weren’t eating because they didn’t have the money. Every time, it broke my heart.
These are the students who would go hungry again.
Kaevion’s story is just one of thousands of students who bring food insecurity into the classroom, regardless of whether they fit the legal definition of poverty. Family transience, household instability, and food deserts are simply not captured in that definition. But their prevalence means that many of our students rely on our schools for their nutrition.
Food insecurity is out of a child’s control, but it punishes the child most of all, because whether or not a student is well-fed directly affects their educational outcomes. It’s wrong for kids to go to school hungry. It is Kaevion’s right as a student to enter every class with a satisfied stomach. It is our responsibility as educators to do everything possible to ensure this right is protected. Keep community eligibility where it is.